The Graduate Workers of Columbia have officially begun their strike for a fair contract with the University after weeks of unsuccessful bargaining, meaning thousands of graduate workers will cease all instruction, research, and communication through University platforms.
“I am looking respectfully for meaningful progress from the University’s contract proposal revisions… I am at my limit,” the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW) tweeted in a meme on Friday afternoon after the last day of official bargaining before their strike deadline of March 15. The strike will be the largest mobilization of the union since April 2018, when 1,500 student workers affiliated with the GWC-UAW went on a six-day strike to gain recognition from the University. Lacking a fixed end date and, as the GWC-UAW reports, potentially involving over 3,000 graduate and undergraduate student workers, this strike is poised to be more sweeping in size and scale.
February 25 marked the second anniversary of bargaining with the University, according to the GWC-UAW website. In March 2020, the GWC-UAW voted 1833 to 77 (96% approval) to call a strike to win a contract and ensure certain rights for all graduate student workers at Columbia. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the potential strike was delayed, and the GWC-UAW re-entered a bargaining period with the University for another year, especially to add new benefits specific to pandemic relief. The Bargaining Committee has met with the University in hopes of writing a contract throughout the year. After meeting with the administration on February 25 and failing to win a contract, the GWC-UAW has called a strike beginning March 15. If the administration fails to approve the first contract within a two-week time frame, the strike will extend until the GWC-UAW’s demands are fully met.
The Demands of the GWC-UAW
Since its initial bargaining session, the Graduate Student Union has demanded the following: a doctoral stipend for graduate students equal to the highest rate seen at other universities like Stanford, the establishment of a union shop, access to non-discrimination and harassment procedures, expanded health benefits, adequate financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic, and better child support.
According to the February 18 update on the website, the GWC-UAW seeks a raise in doctoral stipends for all types of appointments. To understand the current breakdown of a stipend figure for graduate student workers, Bwog reached out to an anonymous graduate student worker of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. According to the GSAS student’s acceptance letter for a nine-month appointment, the GSAS provided “a stipend of $29,350 during the academic year for up to five years,” as well as “a summer stipend of $3,772 for five years, to be disbursed after the first year of enrollment.” The student clarified that these figures do not account for tax reductions and that the stipend amount varies depending on the length of appointment and funding capabilities. The GWC-UAW is currently proposing to raise the 12-, 10-, and nine-month stipends by 10%, alongside an 8% raise in the summer stipend during guaranteed years. The University has denied each proposal, maintaining its position to keep stipend rates at the status quo. According to a March 12 update on the University’s website, Interim Provost Ira Katznelson reviewed the proposals for compensation by the union and Columbia’s fiscals constraints. He concluded that the University would not be able to meet the demands of the GWC-UAW, regardless of a strike. The full breakdown of the GWC-UAW’s proposal, as well as the current counter-proposal by the University, is provided below.
In a March 12 email from the GWC-UAW, sent to Bwog by an anonymous student worker, the GWC-UAW has moved its original support minimum of $45,850 for twelve-month appointments to $43,596. The support minimum for nine-month appointments, originally proposed to be $34,388, has now been revised to amount to $32,697. The new proposal also includes an adjustment to the hourly pay rates for both graduate and undergraduate student workers. The GWC-UAW now demands a minimum $28/hour rate for graduate workers, as well as a $22/hour rate for undergraduate workers. Furthermore, the GWC-UAW demands on-time pay and annual increases in pay-rates, accounting for inflation and annual rent increases. The University has proposed a three-year agreement with the GWC-UAW, promising a “2% increase of the minimum total support for some schools for the first year of the contract, while over time bringing School of Social Work and Mailman to the same level of total compensation,” as well as “2% annual across-the-board increases in the two consecutive years.” The hourly rate minimums for the student workers would begin at $16/hour, gradually increasing to $17/hour by the end of the three-year agreement. The GWC-UAW has also raised the issue that compensation for student workers in the Columbia School of Nursing has not been addressed by the University. According to the email, “Columbia’s team responded positively, indicating they would address this.”
Another demand of the first contract is the establishment of a union shop, which gives new student employees 30 days to either “sign a Union membership card and pay initiation fees and dues as determined by the Union,” or, if the employee does not want to join, “pay to the Union a fair share fee not to exceed the amount of dues.” If ratified, the fair share fee would be determined by the Union, and it would not exceed the dues charged for active members. The University has opposed the idea of a union shop, continuing to argue for an open shop instead, which does not require student workers not in the union to pay fees. However, the GWC-UAW opposes that alternative, claiming in their March 2 update that an open shop is “a classic union-busting position,” incentivizing new employees not to join the union by making fair share fees optional. The GWC-UAW is still trying to bargain with the University for a union shop. Other Columbia unions, such as Local 2110, a Teachers College union, and Postdoctoral Workers UAW Local 4100, have union shop clauses as part of their union contracts.
Many demands in the proposed GWC-UAW contract have to do with access to certain benefits the students currently do not have. For example, in regards to cases of non-discrimination and harassment, the GWC-UAW is demanding access to the grievance and arbitration procedure, which allows for a third-party member to judge cases of harassment and discrimination on a case-by-case basis. The University has granted the GWC-UAW access to “just cause,” a process that allows workers due process if they are accused of job-related misconduct, protecting them from being dismissed or disciplined without reason. The full non-discrimination and harassment proposal can be read here.
As of March 14, Columbia still has not proposed any negotiation regarding the grievance and arbitration accessibility. Instead, the University claimed it would later review the effectiveness of the Union’s proposals. Furthermore, in his email sent to the Columbia community this morning, Interim Provost Ira Katznelson claimed that the University and the GWC-UAW have made progress on enhancing the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) process, proposing an outline for the community to address bullying, as well as the creation of “an appellate panel of faculty and administrators … that would be called on to hear any appeals, at arm’s-length from the Office of the Provost where the EOAA process resides.” The full text of the Interim Provost’s email is provided at the end of this article.
The GWC-UAW has also demanded changes in the leaves of absence policy. Currently, the tentative agreement between the union and the University will establish a new, two-week paid sick leave for “Bargaining Unit Employees” in case of severe illness or illness of immediate family, alongside bereavement leave and twelve weeks of parental accommodation.
Finally, the GWC-UAW is demanding financial support for health benefits and childcare. According to the February 18 update, “while the University maintains that it does not need to bargain over health benefits, they have introduced a counterproposal that creates a $125,000 emergency fund for the length of the contract to cover emergency healthcare costs incurred by workers.” Though the emergency fund would help, the GWC-UAW demands that more changes need to be made, specifically paying for dental and vision premium plans, which are not currently supported by the University.
The University has updated its counter-proposal, increasing the fund from $125,000 to $200,000 per year, and they are now including language that offers full medical premium coverage for PhD student workers. Their recognition proposal, however, does not include coverage for all types of student workers—specifically the course assistants who work 15 hours/week or less. The GWC-UAW has acknowledged this progress, yet they are still advocating for a healthcare fund of $250,000, as well as partial coverage of dental premiums.
On February 24, the GWC-UAW and the University reached a tentative agreement on certain aspects of childcare. As the GWC-UAW stated, “We achieved doubling the annual subsidy from $2,000 to $4,000 for each child under age 5 for PhD parent workers at all schools. This also means that the temporary pandemic subsidy of $4,000 will be the new status quo. While the financial challenges of raising children in NYC will still be considerable, this article lays a foundation for continuing to improve working conditions for parents at Columbia.” The University has also agreed to expand adoption and foster parental programs to all PhD students, as well as the Back-Up Care Advantage program.
Response from the University
On March 8, Interim Provost Ira Katznelson sent out a letter to the Columbia community, offering a glimpse of the University’s otherwise largely unforthcoming perspective on the strike and bargaining process. Addressing the negotiations and his perspective on the strike, Katznelson deemed the union’s decision to strike “both regrettable and unnecessary,” emphasizing the “significant burden” such a strike would put on-campus operations. “I thus close by entreating our student and union representatives to continue intensive good faith bargaining without striking,” he wrote. “We need to be mindful of the price of a stoppage, not least for the thousands of students who have been grappling with non-traditional education via Zoom and hybrid classes. Teaching, including work by TAs, has been remarkably effective, sometimes heroic. It would be disruptive to curtail key features of pedagogy at this particular moment.”
“What the provost fails to talk about,” the GWC-UAW tweeted in response, “is the university’s failure to give any meaningful proposal on compensation, discrimination and harassment, union security, health benefits, and the list goes on.” According to a March 9 paragraph-by-paragraph response to the provost’s email, the GWC-UAW also claimed that the University refuses to negotiate further on access to grievance and arbitration, as well as opening a union shop.
As the strike deadline neared, the Vice President of Columbia University Human Resources Daniel Driscoll announced in an email to graduate student workers on March 11 that the University respects the GWC-UAW’s right to strike but would be practicing its legal right to withhold payment and financial aid from striking graduate student workers for the duration of the strike. Driscoll emphasized that the university “would prefer to continue bargaining to reach an agreement without a strike in the background.” Furthermore, to prevent a total stop in working, the University has claimed that it would create a system that allows student workers to sign in every day they teach so that they could be “properly paid.” However, since signing in is completely optional, the University has stated that anyone who does not sign in “will be assumed to be on strike and will not be paid.” Other University officials have echoed this desire for mechanisms to identify striking individuals. On March 12, Deans James Valentini and Lisa Rosen-Metsch requested in an email to Columbia College and GS students, included in full at the end of this article, for students to report their striking instructors, writing: “If you attend a class and find that the instructor is not there, please contact the relevant academic department for further information or instructions.”
Interim Provost Ira Katznelson wrote a second email to the Columbia community in response to the strike this morning at 10:39 am EST. He spoke out against accusations of the University’s anti-labor attitude, highlighting its 2018 recognition of the GWC-UAW, as well as Columbia’s opposition to the Trump Administration’s proposed rule to “rescind the right of unions to bargain on behalf of graduate students,” as evidence of Columbia’s willingness to support the labor movement. “Equity has been our [the University’s] watchword,” he asserted, but he reiterated the points on which the University is refusing to budge, namely on pay increases.
“Sooner or later,” Provot Katznelson wrote, “there will be agreement on a contract. Of course, sooner would be much better than later. The University will continue to work to that end.”
Implications for Undergraduate Students
With over 3,000 student workers set to strike, the impact for undergraduates will be undeniable and wide-ranging, especially considering that some undergraduate TAs are part of the GWC-UAW’s bargaining unit and thus are capable of joining the strike. While each department has different codes of conduct—and different responses to the strike—graduate student workers teach required courses in many departments, including Core classes required for all students to graduate. How such a strike, especially if it goes on longer than the minimum two weeks, will ultimately affect the completion and grading of such courses is unclear.
The April 2018 GWC-UAW strike, though occurring in the final week of classes, was short enough at only six days of striking to prevent a total disruption in coursework. However, a strike with no fixed end date, like the one beginning today, cannot be as predictable. First, a guaranteed two weeks of halting academic work during an already-shortened semester prevent students from gaining a more complete understanding of the course material. Second, with the possibility of continuing past the initial two weeks, students may not be able to complete their courses at all, which could have substantial effects on future classes, especially if the students are enrolled in prerequisite courses for their intended majors. Lastly, if the strike were to continue through the rest of the semester, grade finalization would fall to each individual department, meaning a potential myriad of policies on course completion could be put into place. In their March 12 email, Deans James Valentini and Lisa Rosen-Metsch encouraged students concerned about the impact of canceled classes to reach out to their advising deans, stressing that “no matter what happens with the strike, the schools will not allow an administrative matter like this one to interfere with your appointment with your well-earned degree.” Barnard College Provost & Dean of the Faculty Linda Bell and Dean of the College Leslie Grinage shared similar sentiments in an email to Barnard students tonight. The full email from the College’s administration is copied below.
Though it is difficult to ascertain overarching attitudes of the undergraduate population in regards to the strike, the GWC-UAW has received a noticeable amount of support from undergraduates. Undergraduate students have established a hardship fund for graduate student workers that has raised over $50,000, and some undergraduate activist organizations, including Columbia YDSA and Student-Worker Solidarity, have openly expressed their support and solidarity. For undergraduate students seeking to get more involved, the GWC-UAW has also created a Google Drive of resources for undergraduate students.
While the strike stands to impact all undergraduate students, some find themselves in a unique position: being both members of the strike’s affected population and active strike participants. Undergraduate TA positions are offered by several departments including Chemistry, Economics, and Mathematics. To better understand this unique position, Bwog reached out to an anonymous undergraduate teaching assistant. Many of the benefits the GWC-UAW is fighting for, such as healthcare and leaves of absence, will by nature not directly impact undergraduate TAs. The proposed hourly wage increase and the grievance and arbitration procedure changes, Bwog’s source confirmed, stand the most likely to alter the working conditions of undergraduate workers. According to the student, though the benefits for undergraduate TAs from the strike are not guaranteed or clear, some still feel a moral obligation to strike. The student elaborated: “It would feel wrong to not, when I have the power as an undergrad TA to put my voice in and show support, morally, there is a drive to be like yes, I support you, even though […] the things you are fighting for do not directly affect my own job.”
The relationship between undergraduate TAs and their graduate counterparts within the union is complicated. Though the union’s bargaining unit does include undergraduate TAs, such workers compose only a minority of the union, and the focus on the union remains predominantly on the interests of the graduate student majority. To some undergraduate TAs, it felt like they were being asked to hold the same amount of responsibility as the graduate students, who, after participating in the Bargaining Committee for the contract for years, “[know] what’s going on in a way that the undergraduate workers … don’t necessarily fully understand.” The student commented that the graduate majority and undergraduate minority has led to an inherent power imbalance between the two kinds of student workers where undergraduate TAs were “asked to make a big decision with very little time and very little precursor,” yet without “the conversation of, ‘this is how undergrads will benefit.’”
Undergraduate TAs, on top of potentially missing out on classes taught by graduate student instructors, face the decision of striking alongside them for benefits that they might not necessarily enjoy. Furthermore, current and future relationships with professors—which can be as important personally as they are professionally—could be affected by the decision one makes to strike, a risk both graduate and undergraduate student workers face. “If you don’t get a position,” the student stated, “you might always wonder: is it because you striked?”
The student clarified, however, that despite not seeing many direct benefits, an undergraduate TA’s role in the strike is to make sure that the graduate students’ voices are heard by the whole Columbia community. “The shared sentiment,” Bwog’s source commented, “is that nobody wants to do the strike. Everyone enjoys teaching and everyone is committed to the job […] it’s important to them.”
The impact of the GWC-UAW strike beginning today will be felt by everyone: faculty, administration, student workers, and students alike. How exactly the strike will develop over time is unpredictable, yet Bwog will continue to follow the events and update when necessary. For now, one thing is certain: this ceasing of activity in the classroom will have a sweeping and immediate effect on academic life, especially during an already-inconvenient time of online learning.
Update, March 15 at 5:35 pm: A representative of Columbia University’s administration reached out to Bwog to clarify the University’s stance in the contract’s grievance and arbitration process as well as the contractual progress on the issues of childcare and leaves of absence. Bwog has made corrections as necessary.
Update, March 15 at 6:20 pm: Barnard College emailed students tonight regarding the strike, and Bwog included that email in this article.
Statement from Deans James Valentini and Lisa Rosen-Metsch, March 12 at 5:59 pm EST:
Dear students of Columbia College and Columbia GS,
You may have heard that the graduate students of Columbia University might choose to hold a strike beginning on Monday, March 15. We write to share answers to questions you may have about how this may impact your coursework:
What should I do while the graduate students are on strike?
The work of the University will continue throughout any strike that may happen, so you should plan to attend classes as usual next week. Please monitor your Columbia email inbox closely for important communications from your instructors.
Your education is the foremost concern of our schools, and we want to ensure that you achieve the objectives and outcomes of your courses. You should continue to keep up with the schedule of assignments for each of your classes. Also, note that no absences from class or class-related activities for reasons relating to the strike will be excused.
What if one of my classes is taught by a graduate student?
If a strike is called, it is up to each individual graduate student to decide whether they will participate in the strike, so do not make any assumptions about whether your class will be held as usual or not. Unless you receive explicit instructions from your instructor that a class meeting is canceled, please attend your class at the usual time.
If you attend a class and find that the instructor is not there, please contact the relevant academic department for further information or instructions. If you are not sure of the home department of the course, please look on the course’s current page in the online Directory of Classes; the home department is listed in the middle of the course page. You can then contact the department directly.
If you have a question about a section of the Core Curriculum (Art Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, Literature Humanities, Music Humanities, or University Writing), contact the Center for the Core Curriculum.
If you have concerns about the effect of canceled classes on your own coursework, please contact your advising dean so that we can try to help in whatever ways we can. While it isn’t possible to anticipate every situation that may arise, we are ready to work with faculty and students to resolve any issues.
Will the strike affect my graduation plans?
No matter what happens with the strike, the schools will not allow an administrative matter like this one to interfere with your appointment with your well-earned degree. The administration and faculty will work together to ensure that all graduating seniors are able to proceed with Class Day and Commencement on time.
What if I want to support the graduate students in their strike?
You may be interested in the issues that the graduate students are discussing, and you should feel free to discuss these issues with graduate students, with faculty, and with one another. It is important to remember, however, that you must fulfill your responsibilities as a student, including attendance at class meetings and submission of required academic work.
We will continue to update you about these matters for the duration of any strike that may occur, so please continue to check your Columbia emails regularly. If you have questions at any time, please contact your advising dean. We are sorry that on top of an already challenging year, this potential strike adds yet another layer of complexity.
James J. Valentini
Dean of Columbia College and Vice President of Undergraduate Education
Dean of Columbia University School of General Studies
Statement from Interim Provost Ira Katznelson, March 15 at 10:38 am EST:
Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,
This is a letter I hoped not to have to write. With the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW strike having begun, despite literally hundreds of hours of negotiation and much already settled, a series of clarifications seems imperative.
The first concerns the rhetorical charge that Columbia either is anti-labor or somehow is seeking to “smash” the union. With the signing of the framework agreement in November 2018, the University recognized the GWC-UAW and the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers-UAW as its interlocutors, and committed itself to good faith bargaining with each to achieve fair and equitable contracts. We reached an agreement, a very good agreement, with the CPW-UAW at the end of June 2020. This was a path-breaking settlement, the first of its kind among major private universities, a source of collective satisfaction.
When the National Labor Relations Board during the Trump Administration proposed a rule that would have rescinded the right of unions to bargain on behalf of graduate students, I wrote to the community the very next day to say that Columbia would continue to adhere to the framework agreement. We said a loud “no” to this anti-labor move. Happily, just the other day, the NLRB rescinded the proposed rule.
As I write, the union has chosen to break off talks in favor of a strike when we are in hailing distance of a second landmark agreement. I say “landmark” even though a small number of union contracts for graduate student workers at private universities exist because, as a matter of scale and standing, a Columbia agreement would be a signal achievement.
Of course, context and timing are causal. The situation regarding health, stress, uncertainty, and material reality is presently far from optimal. Notwithstanding, the current moment offers the opportunity, within the scope of existing constraints, to improve the circumstances of our graduate workers. The contract offered by the University contains many advances, and it dramatically increases stipends in doctoral programs that have been at some distance from existing levels in other parts of the University by establishing unprecedented university-wide minimum levels.
Equity has been our watchword, and not just within and among the graduate student community (whose stipends, unlike arrangements that prevail at many universities, are not linked directly to assignment as TAs and RAs, but are paid at the same level when students are in, or not in, a work situation). As I said to the bargaining committee on Friday, what we are offering regarding compensation is not optimal, but, in present conditions, fair. After all, across the University, faculty and staff have had to forego any wage increase for a year, a limitation graduate students did not experience as their stipend increase was set and announced for 2020-21 before the wage freeze was put into effect.
Nevertheless, the University has offered an additional increase at the start of the contract and in subsequent years. The present demand, now at the reduced level of 5 percent and no less than 4 percent in subsequent years, is not tenable, and no strike, as I told the group, can change that reality.
Another outstanding matter concerns unacceptable discriminatory or harassing behavior. Our latest proposal on the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and Title IX process reflects a direct answer to the key question raised by the union—how can we widen the lens through which one ensures the fairness of the process undertaken by the University in deciding these difficult cases?
We have listened to these concerns and have proposed significant modifications to the process, notably the creation of an appellate panel of faculty and administrators drawn up after discussion with the union that would be called on to hear any appeals, at arm’s-length from the Office of the Provost where the EOAA process resides. Further, in addition to the two existing bases for appeal—process violations and new information not originally considered—we would expand the scope to include interpretations of University policy by an investigator that affected the outcome of the process, and an investigator’s conflict of interest or bias that impacted the outcome, both as new grounds for an appeal.
This substantial set of steps directly addresses the disquiet we have heard from the bargaining committee, and, indeed, from others across the University. To date, the response has been to reject this initiative on the ground that “no one at the university can be neutral,” which, in truth, whether intended or not, is something of an affront.
Sooner or later, there will be agreement on a contract. Of course, sooner would be much better than later. The University will continue to work to that end.
Finally, a note about our educational mission, which, of course, continues. The GWC-UAW website recognizes this important point when it counsels those on strike not to miss their own classes (“student workers should continue their academic progress while striking”). That is good advice, which holds for all.
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History
Statement from Barnard College Provost & Dean of the Faculty Linda Bell and Dean of the College Leslie Grinage, March 15 at 5:50 pm EST:
Dear Barnard Students,
As you may have heard, the Columbia University graduate students union (GWC-UAW) has begun to strike effective today, March 15.
Although the Columbia graduate students are not our students and we have been bystanders to the negotiations process, the graduate student strike might disrupt some of your classes. While we respect the right of the graduate students to strike, we advise you to continue attending classes and completing assignments through the duration of the strike.
We want you to understand that a strike will not impact students who are on track to graduate Barnard this Spring. To the extent a strike may cause delays in grading for courses in which a graduate teaching assistant is either the instructor of record or is supporting a faculty instructor, we will work with faculty and departments to ensure timely credit and grades are assigned to all students.
If you attend a Columbia class and realize that the instructor is not there, please contact the relevant academic department at Columbia for further instructions, or contact your Barnard Class Dean. You can access the Directory of Classes to find the course’s home department, which you can contact directly; the home department is listed in the middle of the course or course section page. (Under “campus,” “Morningside” designates a Columbia course; “Barnard College” designates a Barnard course.)
We will continue to share information as it becomes available. In the meantime, if you have questions or concerns, please contact Christina Kuan Tsu, Interim Dean of Studies, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We thank you for your perseverance as we work through these complexities, and wish you a successful second half of the spring term.
Linda A. Bell
Provost & Dean of the Faculty
Dean of the College
Image via Shira Michaeli